Wunderkind Shelley

Do you know this poem?:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, that is. I read it for a correspondence course in my senior year of high school, and I love it–brilliant, searingly ironic, beautifully lyric. I think I’ve posted it before – back when this blog was new and I posted a poem each Wednesday.

Did you know he also wrote this?:

Why do we admit design in any machine of human contrivance? Simply, because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind, because we are acquainted with persons who could construct such machines; but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had accidentally found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted, and that any attempt to account for the origin of its existence would be equally presumptuous and unsatisfactory.

and this?:

It is vain philosophy that supposes more causes than are exactly adequate to explain the phenomena of things.

You assert that the construction of the animal machine, the fitness of certain animals to certain situations, the connexion between the organs of perception and that which is perceived; the relation between every thing which exists, and that which tends to preserve it in its existence, imply design. It is manifest that if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest, the human frame could not preserve its present mode of existence. It is equally certain, however, that the elements of its composition, if they did not exist in one form, must exist in another; and that the combinations which they would form, must so long as they endured, derive support for their peculiar mode of being from their fitness to the circumstances of their situation.

and this?:

That certain animals exist in certain climates, results from the consentaneity of their frames to the circumstances of their situation: let these circumstances be altered to a sufficient degree, and the elements of their composition must exist in some new combination no less resulting than the former from those inevitable laws by which the Universe is governed….

and this?:

If we found our belief in the existence of God on the universal consent of mankind, we are duped by the most palpable of sophisms. The word God cannot mean at the same time an ape, a snake, a bone, a calabash, a Trinity, and a Unity. Nor can that belief be accounted universal against which men of powerful intellect and spotless virtue have in every age protested….

Turns out he got expelled from Oxford for writing a tract advocating atheism, and wikipedia claims that publishers were afraid to print his writing, throughout his life, lest they be punished for it. Oh yeah, and Shelley wrote the work these quotes are from in 1814. He was a little ahead of the curve, you might say.

…Also, seriously? Shelley was arguing 200 years ago against the very same design arguments that are still trying to insinuate themselves into classrooms today? (sigh)


A little (ok, not so little) book review

I’ve never written a book review at Amazon before, and I just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion recently (people get so mad about it, I just had to read it!). So I decided to post a review of it. Granted, there are already over 1600 reviews of the book, and thousands more comments on the reviews (thanks especially to one or three trolls with a habit of posting pseudo-logical gibberish in reply to nearly every review, and to many of the comments). But hey, why not, right? So, I thought I’d put a copy of my review here. Here ’tis. 🙂

(4/5 stars) Worth reading & examining for yourself (posted October 1, 2010)

A lot of people get fired up about this book, so I wanted to read it to try to see what the fuss is about. And from many of the reactions I’ve seen to Dawkins, I had the impression that he must be veritably livid himself – all but foaming at the mouth as he spits cruel, cruel attacks at his poor (religious) victims.

That really isn’t what I found in The God Delusion.

Of course, Dawkins doesn’t write with the cool detachment and (extreme) caution of a good philosopher; he’s a scientist, and he writes with a scientist’s frustration in the face of a too-common dearth of reasoned thought and scientific literacy in lay society. Yes, the frustration shows through, but I don’t see why anyone should fault him for that. People have committed gross atrocities in the name of “God” — that is rightly very frustrating. But the book is not written in the style of a polemic; it’s a reasoned argument, and it has the feel of such at almost every point. The humor is a nice break now and then, and he does get a bit quote-happy sometimes – but the quotes are interesting, so I enjoyed them as well.

One thing I noticed was that I had to keep reminding myself that Dawkins was using the word “God” in a specific way; early in the book he explains precisely what he means by “the God hypothesis” and thereby what he means by “God”. In a nutshell, that is a supernatural intelligent being that designed and created the universe and everything in it. This is a basic (many religious people would probably want to add to it) but common definition (this is kind of an essential – gets the essence of it – concept of God that many, even across religions, would agree is true of their God).

(Side-note: there is a philosophical/logical problem with the notion of a supernatural entity fiddling around with the physical universe, and that’s why I had to keep reminding myself that Dawkins was arguing against God as commonly conceived – otherwise I wouldn’t see why he’s cold as he is toward agnosticism.)

Of course, if you think “God” is some kind of pattern in nature (or is nature itself), then Dawkins’ arguments aren’t going to work against your “God” – but you’re also not talking about the God described in the scriptures of the major world religions, you’re not talking about a personal God who created the universe and listens to your prayers and gave commandments and rules etc. to prophets … in short, you’re not talking about the kind of God that most people talk about, or go to church to worship, or believe works miracles from time to time, or in whose name people have committed atrocities. That is the kind of God that Dawkins is arguing against.

And he does a fine job of it. Not a perfect job, but then I doubt I’d say that anyone has done a perfect job of arguing their point on any difficult and debated position. In the chapter on morality, it felt clear that he is not a moral philosopher – but that’s probably a good thing, as moral philosophers can’t even manage to agree on whether moral statements (like “it is wrong to kill”) mean anything at all. Dawkins OTOH is writing for people in the real world. 😉

His chapter arguing that religion is akin to child abuse sounded like it would be too extreme, but on reading it, a lot of what he had to say made a lot of sense. I grew up in an area with a lot of Amish, and Dawkins does strike pretty hard at them – but it seemed fair, and his condemnation of the rest of us for helping to forcefully perpetuate the culture seemed more so. I know the feeling of lament that we often have about old traditions dying out (particularly when they aren’t our own traditions); but I also have to wonder why we should lament the fading of outdated traditions more than we lament the limited life possibilities available to the actual people who are trapped unwittingly or even grudgingly in those traditions. Dawkins rightly calls us out on this.

…I still don’t understand why people get so angry about The God Delusion, though. It’s an argument, and the great thing about arguments is that if you disagree, you can try to dissect the argument and prove it wrong (or show why your own argument is stronger or more cogent). You can learn a lot from an argument whether you think it’s right or wrong – so why get mad?

Sing not to heaven

Back when I attended a Christian university, there was a weekly gathering up in the seminary chapel, where people would go and sing hymns and “praise and worship” (camp-y) songs. I went now and then, not so much for the content as for the form – I love to sing, even though I consider my own voice mediocre. I decided for the time being that the content didn’t matter so much.

At those meetings, everyone faced pretty much the same direction in pretty much the same way. While a few would sit down on the floor and look downward, introspectively, and a few would stand at the back and glance around the room occasionally, most stood in a pack in the middle of the floor, face-forward. If they weren’t reading the words off the projector screen, they would gaze upwards, as if they were trying to sing to an invisible something somewhere near the ceiling, or through it. They would sing words about wanting to see this “You”, wanting to know it/him/her, wanting to understand it, to love it, to be loved by it.

And I could not help but think, when I saw them gaze longingly skyward as they sang such words,…

* * *

Ma chère Piety,

I think you fear responsibility.

All of the beauty, all of the strength, the wisdom and compassion you praise in your God: these are the very best in humanity. And all of the ugliness, the violence, malice, and cruelty you condemn as Satan — these are the worst of what humans do. All that you praise, that you worship with your eyes to the stars, and all that you decry as evil, looking toward the lava of earth’s core…. All of your sacredness and all of your evil is within us. It is us.

It is all about people, the best to the worst contained wholly in one human, and I think that it is this which you cannot handle. You can’t believe that good and evil can live shoulder to shoulder in one being, nor that extreme (supreme) good or extreme evil can belong to something that is so — so utterly — ordinary. So unexceptional. That the woman scrupulously inspecting every apple at the grocery, before settling at last on the first one she picked up, can be both demon and saint.

You cannot believe it. You can’t believe in humans. So you fracture them, and believe in gods instead.

And if evil and good are all in us, all in you, then the only ones who are responsible for all of the good that we do to each other and for all of the evil we do each other, too, is us, ourselves. If good is to happen, we must do it. If evil is done, it’s entirely on us.

That kind of responsibility is just too frightening, it seems. It’s too much for you to bear.

You all sing with such longing, such praise, such yearning to ‘see’ — if only you could see that what you are really singing to is no God at all, but each other!



Ruminating, part deux

And now for something not really so very different.  Well, a little different: a caveat to yesterday’s post, but not to anything I literally wrote.

Both poems – the Rumi that I copied and the cummings that I linked – are by religious poets.  One was a Moslem (Sufi mystic), the other Christian (Unitarian, I think).

I, however, am not religious.  I am agnostic; ‘God’ as represented by world religions is a supernatural being, outside of or at least not constrained by the laws of physics.  The physical universe contains everything that is observable; this god, as claimed, is not contained within the physical universe.  There is no observation or set of observations that can corroborate or falsify the hypothesis that there is a supernatural god (let alone any claims about this god).  Further, I know of no philosophically convincing argument that such a god must exist.  As a result, both the claim that god exists and the claim that no god exists seem intellectually irresponsible.

So it feels a bit strange to post work by a religious poet, and to say that I love it.  Rumi writes frequently of the Friend or the Beautiful One or God, and cummings has written his poem to God (the only thing he capitalizes in his poetry, from what I’ve seen), ideas against which my mind protests. They attribute so much to a being whose existence is merely conceivable, and whose ability to affect the physical universe would be questionable at best anyway.  Yet I love the poems.  It is paradoxical.

Perhaps the reason the religious aspect does not ruin those poems for me is that their religion is not common religion.  It is not churchiness.  It is not bigoted, it does not demonize religious others, it pictures no spider held to dangle over the precipice of hell by a thin thread in the fingers of an angry god.  It is the opposite of those things; these are them whose religion is love, is intoxication with life.  If they believed their god were the vengeful sort, one who meant himself to be held in terror, they would have turned a deaf ear to their religion.  “To love is to reach God,” writes Rumi. (And the lover is a mad, crazy fool. The rules, fear, propriety and judgmentalism of common religion cannot touch him.)

His god is the one who says

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.

They may talk to fairies, but at least their fairies aren’t the murderous sort.

Smart quotes on religion

One of the members of the Mensa group on FB posted a paraphrased quote by Galileo that is very good.  In looking it up, I found the others here by famous folk who I can believe really were pretty good thinkers.

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
-Galileo Galilei

(Exactement how I would want to say it, were I to suppose that God exists.)

I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that He is even infinitely above it.
-Benjamin Franklin

(Again, were I to suppose the existence of God.)

If we accept that there is neither a heaven or a hell, we renounce the idea of any power beyond the perception of science; we then must accept responsibility for all we do in this life for there will be no form of atonement afterwards.
-Dominic Webb

Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is possible that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never had much temptation to be human beings.
-George Orwell

Most people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always notice that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.
-Mark Twain

I consider dogmatic belief and dogmatic denial very childish forms of conceit in a world of infinitely whirling complexity.
-Robert Anton Wilson

I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth.
-Thomas Jefferson

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it as I detest everything that is cruel.
-Thomas Paine